Anne-Marie Slaughter: Policy is not just 'something government does,' it's about solving problems that affect all Americans
She says on issues from gay marriage, school lunches, wages, paid leave, and more, policies respond to the needs of society
Editor’s Note: Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of New America. She was director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011. She is the author of “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. To watch the personal behind the policy unfold in real time, tune into the livestream of New America’s annual conference Thursday and Friday.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” — and a public conversation ignited.
Why? It was not because I said anything new (feminist scholars and policy experts have been writing about fighting discrimination and supporting families for decades), but because I linked larger social problems to a very personal story.
It was the story of my struggle, even as a privileged woman with lots of advantages, as I tried to fit career aspirations together with my role as a mother whose son needed both parents focused on him for a while.
By writing about this I made it easier for millions of other women (and a growing number of men) to acknowledge their own struggles, and to blame the policies that caused them — the system – rather than themselves.
“Policy” is a bland, abstract word. One of the problems of running a “policy research institution,” or “think tank,” is that no one beyond Washington’s beltway has any idea what it is you do. To some people “policy” means “what government does,” but in many parts of the country that definition can add hostility to the confusion!
It shouldn’t. Policy is really about trying to solve public problems: problems of health care, education, poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, child care, elder care, national security, privacy, a free and open Internet, fair competition – and many others.
Public problems are ones that we must come together to solve, problems often created by people pursuing their self-interest in ways that create problems for society as a whole. Public problems are our problems as individuals who live together in a society and seek to govern ourselves.
When we can’t solve them, individual lives are warped and blocked. When we can, the impact is equally personal. Consider, for instance, the case of religious groups that do not want to offer insurance to cover contraception even as their female employees are trying to obtain exactly that. Both will feel the policy repercussions of a case that the Supreme Court returned to the lower courts earlier this week to determine if compromise is possible.
Or consider the homeowners who will benefit from a new policy regulating the sales of mortgages, rules that the Department of Housing and Urban Development just announced it will write to make life fairer for homeowners in distress.
The examples are everywhere, affecting American citizens when they shop, work, go to school, commute, compete and care for each other:
The consolidation of our domestic food market, which has put a vast swath of America’s food production under the control of a handful of corporations, changes the price and quality of what’s in our grocery stores, and is therefore relevant to all who eat food: That’s all of us! Our failure to sufficiently reform student aid is making universities less accessible for more students. Federal poverty guidelines dictate who is eligible for housing and help.
We know this – in theory. But it is easy to forget, in our world of ever spinning news cycles and falling faith in government, that the hard, heavy work of policy matters, and that it will keep mattering.
Because, like our personal lives, policy is not immutable. Policies can be changed, and can be changed for the better. In the past decade alone, we’ve seen the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the expansion of marriage to include all who love each other.
We’ve seen policy changes that guarantee: equal pay for equal work under the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; the right for the FDA to regulate the tobacco industry; billions more spent on healthier meals for our littlest learners; more broadband coverage for more Americans; and the expansion of stem cell research, which holds potential benefits, from repairing cardiovascular damage to improving cancer treatment. And in the coming weeks we’ll see whether a federal appeals court upholds the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to preserve net neutrality for all Americans.
Stop for a moment and think about what policies matter most to you. What changes in law and regulation have made the biggest difference in your lives?
When we asked our staff at New America we got a wonderful range of results, and many very personal stories. In trying to answer that question, you may find that new technologies have made a bigger difference than policy changes – that Uber and Lyft have helped you get around more than improvements in public transport. But even where computer code appears to be changing your life more than legal code, the reality is that new technology itself will be affected by policy.
Policy is personal. When policy wonks forget that (wonk is itself policy jargon – “know” spelled backward), we need only look at a map of America to remember that every town is full of people whose stories are written in part by the words we work so hard to put to paper: in reports, white papers, regulations and legislation.
That process repeats itself, moreover, in city halls from Seattle to Miami and statehouses from New York to Nevada. And when citizens wonder what on earth all of those self-professed public problem-solvers do, they need only imagine how their own lives might be different if a particular law or regulation were written a different way.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of New America. She was director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011. She is the author of “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. To watch the personal behind the policy unfold in real time, tune into the livestream of New America’s annual conference Thursday and Friday.